Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's the third of four Sherlock Holmes novels by the author who created him. It's the fifth of nine books about the great detective, counting the five sets of short stories. But if one work represents the series, or the works of Conan Doyle, in the canon of great books in the English language, it is The Hound of the Baskervilles. First published 1901-02 in serial form, it is a slender enough novel that the audio-book ready by the irreplaceable David Case requires only about six CDs. At times it seems as though its author poured shots of The Return of the Native and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall into a tumbler, added a dash of Bram Stoker and a garnish of Wilkie Collins, chilled it with a murder mystery, and gave it a shake. Yet the cocktail that pours out is the pure and quintessential Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The surprising thing, after you accept that summary, is how much of the mystery Dr. John Watson manages on his own. Holmes sends him off to the Devon countryside to watch over a young baronet who has inherited a family estate and the curse that goes with it. Sir Henry Baskerville is the only known relative to survive of the late Sir Charles, who died under most mysterious circumstances. Somehow, incredible though it may seem to a scientific type like Holmes, the death seems connected with a giant, fire-breathing hell-hound that has, heh, dogged the family's steps since the 17th century.

Set amid the gloomy atmospherics of Dartmoor, Baskerville Hall seems the right type of place for generations of a landed family to suffer an unhappy fate as punishment for the sins of an ancestor. But even Watson, without Holmes to direct him, manages to unpick half the web of mystery that entangles Sir Henry. On a grim moor fraught with dangerous bogs, where the night is haunted by eerie sounds, mysterious lights and threatening strangers, the greatest danger may not come from an escaped convict from a nearby prison but from a seemingly harmless neighbor who isn't what he seems. Even after Holmes rejoins the pursuit, his only chance to catch the shrewdest enemy of his career so far may prove too late, or too risky, to save his client's life.

Romantic melodrama, supernatural horror, and fiendish villainy are the material Holmes has to work with, together with a collection of clues so odd that they must explain everything - if only one can fit them together the right way. Why should someone steal one of Sir Henry's new boots from his hotel room, then return it and steal one of his old boots? What are the baronet's servants up to as they move about Baskerville Hall in the dead of night? What can explain the impossibly huge canine footprints, the spine-tingling howling and the reported sightings of a spectral hound? Who was Sir Charles planning to meet at the gate separating his grounds from the moors on the night he died, and why does he seem to have died of fright? If only one convict escaped from the prison, why have two different strangers been sighted on the moor? And if the hand behind all this is human rather than demonic, whose is it and what do they mean by it?

Holmes' crime-solving process seems as sound as ever, a testament to Conan Doyle's power to persuade. With the directness of a letter to the newspaper, albeit a very long one, Watson's narrative achieves a memorable effect. With only a tenth of the poetic diction of Thomas Hardy or the structural experimentalism of Ann Brontë - even in spite of repeating stock phrases of mood-altering language like "tingling nerves" often enough to draw attention to their repetition - this book has managed to insinuate itself among the fixed and immovable furniture of our literature. It is one of the tributaries that supplies an essential stream of mythology to our culture. Good but not very good, great mainly by dint of its vast popularity, its power to plant indelible images and ideas in the reader's mind can only be experienced, not explained. The subject of numerous film adaptations, imitations and parodies, it is one of the easiest books to get through on the inevitable long list of books everyone should read at least once. And for the information of anyone wanting to follow the Holmes books in publication order, it is followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

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